I’m an Adult Now*

When does a young person become an adult? What’s the line between ‘not-an-adult’ and ‘adult?’ It’s really rather blurred, if you think about it. Legally speaking, people attain majority in many places when they’re 18, or sometimes 21. This means they can vote, enter into contracts, give sexual consent, and more.

But if you think about it, do you really consider an 18-year-old an adult? In some ways, yes, especially legally. But if you know young people in this age group, you know that they’re often in that ‘not-quite-ready-for-adulthood’ category. So, the legal definition doesn’t really capture it. There are, of course, coming-of-age rituals in different cultures and religions (e.g. the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, the quinceañera, confirmation, or the kinaalda (that’s the coming-of-age ritual for Navajo girls)). But those rituals usually take place during the early-to-mid teen years. And most of us would likely agree that people that age are not adults.

So, the answer to ‘how do you know when someone’s an adult’ can be murky. And crime fiction explores that murkiness. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the genre shows us ourselves. But it’s really interesting to see how the question is addressed.

Some people think of adulthood as meaning the taking on of adult responsibilities, such as getting a job, minding the children, having a home, and the like. But plenty of very young people do those things. For instance, in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is trying to clear her name of suspicion of murdering her former lover, Douglas Brady. At one point, she’s visiting her friend, Leslie. Here’s what Leslie says about some of the children who live near her:


‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’ 


This child is only seven – certainly not an adult chronologically. but she’s already doing the sort of child-minding that many parents would entrust only to an adult in whom they had confidence.

In Peter May’s Entry Island, Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec is seconded to Entry Island when James Cowell is murdered there. As it is, he has regular bouts of insomnia. But during his trip to the island, he begins to have vivid dreams of stories he was told as a child – stories of his Scottish ancestor, also called Sime. As the novel goes on, we learn more about that Sime, who lived during the early-to-mid 19th Century, and emigrated to Canada. Among other things, we learn that, although he’s a boy by nearly any modern standard, he takes on a great deal of adult responsibility when his father’s off hunting. I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that the 19th-Century Sime’s father is killed. At that point, Sime takes on even more responsibility for his home, his mother and his siblings. That scenario might not be unusual for the times, but it certainly blurs the line between child and adult.

To make matters even murkier, there are also plenty of crime-fictional characters who are chronologically adults, but don’t really seem to have crossed that threshold. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boynton family. Matriarch Mrs. Boynton and her adult children, Lennox, Raymond and Carol, are in the Middle East on a sightseeing tour. With them is Mrs. Boynton’s youngest child, seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny,’ and Lennox’s wife, Natalie. This isn’t a ‘normal’ family trip, though. Mrs. Boynton is malicious, domineering and mentally cruel. Her family members are so cowed that no-one dares to oppose her, and that includes the three oldest Boyntons. Through the eyes of some of the other characters (including Hercule Poirot), we get to know the Boyntons. It’s interesting to see that, although Lennox, Raymond and Carol are chronologically adults (they’re in their twenties to early thirties), they don’t really live like adults, as we usually conceive of that. Several characters make mention of it. But that doesn’t stop them being suspected when Mrs. Boynton is murdered on the second day of the family’s journey to Petra…

In Vicki Delaney’s Winter of Secrets, we are introduced to Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth, her brother Jason, and five of their friends. All of them are university students on a skiing trip to Trafalgar in British Columbia. They’re all from well-to-do families, so they have no problem affording the trip, renting an SUV, bringing all of the skiing equipment they’ll need and so on. On Christmas Eve, Jason and his best friend, Ewan Williams, are in the SUV the group has rented. They have a terrible accident and go off the road into a nearby river. Jason dies from the injuries he’s received. But it turns out that Ewan was dead – probably for several hours – before the accident. Now, Sergeant John Winters and Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith have a murder case on their hands. And it won’t be easy. All of the people involved are hiding things, and Wendy and Jason’s parents aren’t very helpful. In the end, though, they find out who the murderer is. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how, although these are adults in several ways, they don’t really live completely responsible adult lives.

And then there’s Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus. Dr. Duca Lamberti has recently been released from prison after serving a sentence for euthanasia. One day he’s approached by Pietro Auseri, an engineer who’s concerned about his son, Davide. It seems that Davide has been in a deep depression, and has taken to drinking heavily. Even stints in rehabilitation facilities haven’t been of any help. Auseri wants Lamberti to find out what’s the matter with Davide, and help him. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do, but he agrees. He soon learns that Davide’s depression stems from an incident a year earlier, when a young woman named Alberta Radelli died after threatening Davide that she would commit suicide if he didn’t take her with him. Davide blames himself for her death, so Lamberti believes that his patient won’t heal unless they learn the truth about the young woman’s death. Davide agrees, and the two look more closely into the matter. It turns out that Alberta’s death was not a suicide at all. Throughout the book, we see that, although Davide Auseri is chronologically an adult, he doesn’t really have an independent life, and Lamberti has to coach him to really start thinking for himself.

As you can see, crime fiction isn’t very helpful when it comes to working out where the line is between ‘adult’ and ‘not-an-adult.’ And it’s quite likely that it’s not really a line, anyway. What do you think? When did you first really think of yourself as an adult? I’m due any day now, I think…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Pursuit of Happiness.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Denise Mina, Giorgio Scerbanenco, Peter May, Vicki Delany

22 responses to “I’m an Adult Now*

  1. Yet another fascinating topic, Margot! There are quite a few of those young people who haven’t quite grown up in Agatha Christie’s novels. I’m thinking of Megan Hunter who is 20 in The Moving Finger, but is still like an awkward, unhappy teenager at the beginning of the novel, an ugly duckling character.
    As for growing up myself, still a work in progress . . . but having children was certainly a step on the way!

    • I know what you mean, Christine, about the way having children makes you grow up! And thanks for mentioning Megan Hunter. She is as awkward as any preteen/teenager, and yet, as you say, she’s 20. I like the way she does some growing and blossoming in the course of the novel. Thanks for filling in that gap. And thanks for the kind words.

  2. Col

    An interesting topic and one close to home with 3 children all over the age of content, but all still my babies!

  3. Hmm…I’m 28 now and I’m starting to feel more and more like a real grownup everyday, but if I’m honest I’m very bad at it. My mom already had 2 children at my age and had immigrated from East Africa to Canada, completely immersing herself in a new culture with no one to help her but herself. I couldn’t dream of doing that alone with 2 small children. But she came from a world where children were seen as little adults from much earlier ages. She raised 3 of her siblings while she was a teenager herself. And all that was completely normal. I guess I know I’m an adult and, even though I’m yet to enter my 30s, my body is already starting to feel its age. (All the candy I eat isn’t helping matters). In other ways, I’m completely grown. I pay my bills on time, I have a full time job

    • (Comment got cut off)…and I enjoy nights in much more than nights out. I’m still an inbetweener, I suppose. I have a feeling I’ll feel that way for a long time to come.

      • You may, indeed, Mak. It sounds as though you’re making that transition into responsible adulthood, since you have work responsibilities, bills, and so on. And trust, me, if you think your body gets tired now, wait until you’re not in your 30s any more… 😉

    • Thank you, Mak, for sharing your own experiences. It’s really interesting, isn’t it, how culture and region impact how quickly one is seen as an adult. It sounds as though your mother had to grow up at a very young age. And you’re right; immigrating is difficult at any time, but doing it without a partner, and with two little children, must have been even harder. I give her a lot of credit.

  4. Haha! I’m with you… still waiting hopefully! 😉 I reckon I began to feel like an adult when I moved into a ‘proper’ apartment of my own, as opposed to the bedsits and flat-shares I’d had up to then. There’s nothing like those bills landing on the doormat to make you feel grown-up! On the other hand, my family still treat me as ‘the baby’ because I’m the youngest, despite the fact that this baby’s hair now needs regular colouring! So I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder…

    • Haha! I think it is, too, FictionFan. And the younger one is in the family, the longer it takes to be thought of as an adult…

      You make a good point, too, about living arrangements, Once you have a real place of your own – no sharers of any kind (unless, perhaps, it’s a spouse/partner) – it does hit home that you’re an adult. Those bills are yours. Not always a fun moment of truth, but I think that is an ‘I’m a real adult now’ moment.

  5. To see how this question is being studied, you might find a new book by Ben Sasse called The Vanishing American Adult of interest. I haven’t read it, but the blurb says there’s a chapter or section devoted to the importance of reading in becoming an adult. I hope this title might be of interest.

  6. I really enjoyed this post! 🙂 The ‘adulting’ struggle plays such a fascinating role in crime. Thank you for sharing this 🙂

  7. Interesting and difficult to answer question, Margot. Sometimes circumstances dictate that old souls live in young bodies. The opposite can be true. At 18 I joined the Marines, fought in Vietnam (1967-68), and was back home at aged 19. I wasn’t eligible to vote until the 1972(?) election, at which time I was 24. Now (in the U.S.) 18 year olds have the vote. I personally believe most “kids” at 18 don’t have the maturity to deserve the vote (I can hear the boos as I type!). Conversely, there are many, many older adults who remain ignorant of the history and government of the country. They have the vote, but many can’t name the three branches of government (U.S.), or other pertinent questions. I personally believe there should be a “voter’s test” that one must pass before being issued a voter I.D. card which includes a photo (more boos and hisses!). Just my two cents worth! 🙂

    • You’re right, Michael, that people mature and learn at different times in their lives. That’s part of what makes the question of ‘who is an adult’ so murky at times.

  8. Enjoyed your post, Margot, as usual. I was particularly struck by what you said about the (mystery) genre shows us ourselves. So true. 🙂

  9. kathy d.

    I guess I became an adult when in my mid-twenties I had to deal with the severe illness and then loss of someone close to me. Nothing is a shock to the system as that. I knew I always had to work, to support myself and pay the bills and not rely on anyone else.
    And moving in an apartment that was mine and paying the bills.
    Also, another demarcation point is taking responsibility for what one does and says, no matter what. And then being able to apologize or remedy a situation.

    • I agree, Kathy. Taking responsibility for what one does is a major sign of adulthood. And so is dealing with grief and loss, as you did. There’s nothing quite like that to push a person to be an adult.

  10. JK Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy isn’t a straightforward crime novel, though it certainly has some of the elements. One of the best characters in it is Krystal – a troubled young woman with far too many responsibilities, who has a mother who doesn’t step up. She is a very memorable character – but the book contains several other excellent teenagers, and much consideration of growing up and what it means. In my view it is a much under-rated novel, which gave a compelling picture of modern British life.

    • Thanks, Moira. That really is a fine example of the sort of thing I had in mind with this post. And trust Rowling to be able to capture those nuances so well. I think she’s quite good at that.

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